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Stars starting to receive more offense from blue line

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

With six goals and twelve assists from defensemen over their last eight games, the Dallas Stars have taken a major step forward lately in terms of generating offense from the blue line.

Stephane Robidas
For a team that struggled to score seven goals over a six-game span heading into the All-Star Break last week, the sudden spike in offensive contributions from the squad’s defense corps has been a major plus.

While the Stars’ overall number of goals from defensemen, 21 through the first 54 games of the season, jumped up into the middle of the NHL pack with the recent surge, the offense still comes mostly by committee.  The 22 points that D-man leader Alex Goligoski has amassed, on seven goals and 15 assists, exceeded just five other teams’ top blue line point-producer.

But Dallas does have four different rearguards with 16 points or more (Sheldon Souray 18, Stephane Robidas 17, Trevor Daley 16), so they do have depth in that area. And that doesn’t include rookie Philip Larsen, who is beginning to get a bit more involved in the offensive zone and has registered four points (one goal, three assists) in the last eight games.

“I take it upon myself and make sure I’m trying to hop up and get in the offense and get our forwards the puck,” acknowledged Goligoski, who has totaled a combined 12 goals and 37 points in 66 games with the Stars since he was acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh back on Feb. 21, 2011. “It can get streaky, especially as a defenseman, you can go a few games where you’re getting points and a few where you’re not, you just have to keep doing the same things.”

Stars coach Glen Gulutzan admits that producing more offense from the blue line has been a priority and an aspect that the coaching staff, including assistant coach Paul Jerrard, who focuses on the defensemen, has been emphasizing.

“To be honest, we’ve worked on that a lot,” Gulutzan acknowledged. “We’ve got a couple little things we worked on (in practice), just in transition and trying to get our D in the offense, but a lot of that offense is coming right from the blue line, in getting shots through that first wave of defenders and that’s something Paulie’s worked with the D a lot at this year. It helps a lot when you add another righty into the picture, because it’s easier to spread pucks when you have lefty-righty there and it’s easier for those guys to get them through. So I think with Larsen and Goose and Robi and Hammer playing together, you’re going to see more of that type of production.”

“We certainly want to get as much production from the back end as we can, but not every single game or not every situation dictates it,” adds Jerrard. “The number one job of a defenseman is to play some defense, but we do have some guys that can contribute some offense, some guys that can really carry the puck back there, some really mobile defensemen, so we’ve never really said ‘don’t get involved in the offense,’ we’ve just said, ‘make sure you’re smart about picking your spots.’”

The players themselves all recognize that their primary responsibilities are in their own zone and that chipping in on offense is secondary to that and subject to each individual game’s circumstances.

“We also have a defensive responsibility that comes first,” noted Daley, who has gone 14 games without a point following a stellar 13-game stretch in which he produced 11 points (three goals, eight assists), including two game-winning goals. “So depending on how the game’s going, the score of the game and the time of the game, for most of us and me personally, the reads I make out there is based on that. We do whatever we can to win games and that’s how we approach it every night.”

“You’ve got to take a lot of things into account when you’re going - the time of game, score of game,” noted Jerrard, himself a former defenseman who played five games with the Minnesota North Stars back in 1988-89. “We want to make sure it’s a chance they can legitimately jump in, we don’t want them to jump in on half or hope chances.”

Earlier in the season, when the club jumped out of the chute to a stunning 11-3-0 record, the team was receiving more offense from its defenders, connecting for nine goals over those first 14 games, but that offense began to dry up.

One contributing factor to the overall sagging numbers from blueliners from mid-November on was the decline of the power play unit, which entered a major drought back on Nov. 15. The PP unit’s slump also coincided almost exactly with the broken thumb suffered by Goligoski in Pittsburgh Nov. 11 in the team’s 15th game. With the extra-man unit missing its quarterback and the club’s top-scoring defenseman out of the lineup, both figures struggled, as the power play converted on just 10 of the next 98 opportunities over a span of 32 games through the All-Star break last week. 

Meanwhile, the club received just seven goals from the blue line over that stretch, with three coming from Daley and three more from Goligoski after he returned to the lineup following an 11-game absence from the injury. Larsen had the other one, his first NHL goal, Jan. 21 in Minnesota.

“I think for about 20 games there, we all went a little cold and were having trouble scoring goals, hopefully we’re trending upwards right now,” said Souray. “All the good teams, if you look across the league, they all get offense coming in second waves coming from late guys coming in and getting shots on net. We have to be more like that. We’re capable of it, and we want to be more involved.”

It’s only been in the last few games that the power play has gotten back on track, striking four times in 18 chances in the six games since returning from the All-Star Break. As it happens, the Stars have also gotten three goals from the defense in those games as well, including multiple assists.

“That’s where a lot of defensemen get their points, on the power play, and that’s obviously an area we’ve tried to focus on and improve,” said Goligoski, who has earned eight of his 19 points this year on the power play. “So far, so good, we’ve been able to get a few goals (lately), so we’ll try to keep that going.”

“Our power play has been a bit of our Achilles heel this year,” added Souray, who compiled 13 points (four goals, nine assists) over the first 14 games before enduring a stretch of just four assists in 28 contests, including a 16-game point drought. “We’re certainly capable of scoring goals on the power play, we have two solid units, we just haven’t been producing as much as we’ve needed to win games and it’s shown. I think lately we’ve been simplifying it a bit, try and get pucks to the back end quicker and get pucks to the net and try and create battles.

“The guys have done a good job of that the last three or four games and we have to keep doing that. The teams that are ranked near the top in penalty kill and power play are teams that are usually in the top eight in the standings and are in playoff position, so we definitely need to improve on that if we want to get in there for the homestretch.”

One of the keys to a successful power play is the ability of the blueliners to get their shots through to the net from the point. It’s something the squad has been working on in practice all year.

“It’s been an ongoing process right from Day One,” Jerrard said. “We’ve introduced a few little things in that, in hopes that they can create some more space and get their shots through. A lot of it that we’ve stressed is just catching the puck in position where you can pass or shoot the puck quickly. Another key element back there is keeping your head up, keeping your eyes up. Another thing where I think our forwards can help us is moving the puck from low to high, to give the D an extra second to shoot the puck. The other thing we talk about is, now you’ve got your head up, the puck in either shooting or passing position, now you can use your agility to move across the line maybe a foot or two, to adjust the puck angle and get the shot through.”

“We can still contribute and I think that comes with following the play in and not being selective when we shoot, just getting pucks through,” added Souray, who was tied with Jamie Benn for the club lead in shots on goal, with 130. “You never want to have the forwards do a lot of hard work, get it back to the D and hit shin pads and it’s coming back your way. It’s a trust thing, it’s a two-way street, the forwards are getting pucks to us a little more often now and I think it’s because we’re getting pucks through. We want to get offense from the back end as much as we can.”

With the club in the midst of an intense playoff drive, getting points from the defensemen is more crucial than ever.

“This is a big stretch for us, the next three or four games for us are games we’ve got to have,” said Goligoski of the Stars’ upcoming busy stretch that includes back-to-back road games Thursday in Columbus and Friday in Buffalo. “We know we have a tough month coming up schedule-wise, and realistically, this month is going to make-or-break us, so we’ve got to go on a little run here and pick up points in all these games.”
“We know it’s something that we can do and it’s something that we have to try to take advantage of,” Robidas said of getting more offense from the blue line. “If it’s there, it’s there, I think we have to focus on playing good D first. That’s the main thing, play really well in our own zone and make sure we don’t give the other team opportunities going the other way. That’s the main thing for us as a group, make sure we play a solid game defensively and when once we have our chance if we can go and attack, we can go, but just be smart about it.”

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